The Sound of One Hand Playing
by Cat Johnson
I find that the best way to learn about classical music is a little at a time. It’s a vast genre that spans not decades, but centuries, and it can be a bit overwhelming to get familiar with all the composers and artists. But, it’s a genre full of stories: tragedies, comedies, adventures, outrageous characters and love, and once you know the stories surrounding pieces or composers, the music becomes easier to get a handle on. In a recent interview I did with concert pianist Adam Neiman, he said, “Knowing what you’re listening to is half the battle.”
French composer Maurice Ravel’s Concerto for the Left Hand (written between 1929 and 1930) is a dark and lovely piece that was commissioned by Austrian pianist Paul Wittgenstein after he lost his right arm in World War I. Hailing from a family of means and influence, Wittgenstein commissioned a number of composers to write music for him to perform, including Richard Strauss, Sergei Prokofiev and Benjamin Britten. Ravel’s Concerto is the most famous of all the works.
As the story goes, Wittgenstein wasn’t that into the piece when he first heard it; too rhythmic and jazzy for his taste. He grew to love it, though, and now the Concerto is forever linked to him and his story.
An interesting side note: Ravel was adamant that this piece was only to be played with one hand. But after he died, some people not only performed it playing with two hands, but even recorded it. Seems like cheating to me.
If you want to learn more about classical music, come in and talk to our classical guru Rob Z. He has stories for days and is a constant source of information and insight into classical composers and artists.
Ravel’s Concerto for the Left Hand is pretty long, but here is Elisso Wirssaladze playing the first half of it so you can see what it’s all about. The piano comes in at the 2:31 mark.
And here’s Wittgenstein playing it, though video camera’s were before his time, so you get photos rather than a video of him playing.